Panel rounds off Asian Heritage Month, unpacking identity, anti-Blackness in Asian diaspora

At the end of Asian Heritage Month, several Vancouver-based Asian femme activists gathered virtually to discuss how COVID-19 and recent incidents of anti-Blackness have affected the celebration of heritage this year.

Resistance and Resurgence: Unpacking “Asian Heritage Month” was hosted by Feminists Deliver, a BC-based collaboration between multiple organizations supporting marginalized genders. The moderator, Rona Amiri, described herself as a “racialized settler” who was born in Iran to Afghani refugees and immigrated to Coast Salish territories when she was young. Amiri was joined by UBC grads Kimberley Wong, Lara Maestro and Abeer Yusuf, all activist organizers.

The May 28 panel, taking place the same week as the death of George Floyd in police custody and subsequent protests across the United States, spent much of its time discussing anti-Blackness in Asian communities and what can be done to address it.

“Our membership as people of colour in this country has been contested and protested since its inception of colonial Canada,” said Wong, a queer Chinese-Canadian whose work with organizations like the hua foundation reflects her interest in climate justice and multiculturalism.

“I’m hoping this is a wake up call to my community … and I hope it radicalizes us to learn more about what Black [and] Indigenous people have been naming again and again.”

Migrant origins

Amiri opened the panel by discussing the origins of Asian Heritage Month, an idea from the late-20th century not adopted by the Canadian government until a Hong Kong-born senator named Vivienne Poy proposed it in 2001.

She also spoke about the various faces of anti-Asian racism throughout history and the present day, from Chinese labourers exploited by British fur traders to the poor treatment of migrant workers from Southeast and South Asia.

“The point of the month is to celebrate immigrants who have journeyed to Canada from East Asia, Southern Asia, Western Asia, Southeast Asia, bringing our society together [with] rich cultural heritage representing many languages, ethnicities and religious traditions,” she said.

Maestro and Yusuf both spoke about their worries for family members as they watched the pandemic play out in their homelands. Maestro is a Filipina settler and a member of the Filipinx organizations Sulong UBC and Migrante BC, and Yusuf is a UBC Masters of Journalism graduate with roots in Malaysia and India.

“We really want Filipinos here to be aware of what people are facing back home because it affects us all. It’s the reason that we’re here, that we’re migrants in the first place,” said Maestro, as she spoke about how COVID-19 lockdowns have allowed the Filipino government to carry out further state repression.

Deconstructing power

When speaking about how anti-Blackness manifests in Asian communities, Yusuf pointed out that power is “relational” and context dependent. People of colour can also have privilege, particularly in the “post-colonial” countries where she grew up.

Maestro highlighted the need for Asians to actively work against anti-Black racism in their families and the larger community: “We need to find ways to be antagonists against it.”

To meaningfully extend solidarity to our “Indigenous and Black siblings,” the panellists emphasized supporting organizations led by Indigenous and Black people through monetary donations and by organizing with them.

“Affirming people’s experiences is important,” explained Wong. “But I’ve found a lot of folks from the Black [and] Indigenous community often say, ‘Okay, those are good, but if you’d like to do more, there are ways that we don’t benefit from what you do.’ And one of those is through money.”

Yusuf also emphasized the need for constant — and often uncomfortable — learning when it comes to ensuring that Asian allies don’t end up co-opting the struggles of Black and Indigenous people while trying to support them.

Wong brought up her concerns with recent conversations she’s had with leaders of Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian community about an increased police presence — something that people of colour may not be comfortable with. Earlier in May, CBC was put on blast for an article suggesting that witnesses of racist incidents immediately call the police.

“Not all people feel safe going to cops because of complex histories of war and trauma, because of language barriers and, frankly, because they have had a terrible history of protecting people of colour: namely Black, brown, Indigenous folks,” she said.

“I’m not Black, brown or Indigenous but I think that that’s been on my mind a lot — how we can find alternatives to calling the police when these things happen.”